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Women Mentoring Women Will Overcome Glass-Ceiling Barriers

KATHERYN M. FONG <i> is manager of call center operations for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in San Francisco</i>

Someone asked me what I thought of the recently released report on women in the workplace published by the Glass Ceiling Commission. At the time, I was dealing with a $55-million variance in my 1995 operating budget, I had to come up with strategies for improving customer service while reducing costs, and, in the midst of these challenges, I had a vendor requesting payment of an additional $1.75-million cost overrun for a project still in progress. Then when I thought things couldn’t get much more stressful, my 3-year-old daughter broke out with the chicken pox.

Needless to say, thoughts of how women can overcome the glass-ceiling barriers took a back seat to my immediate priorities.

However, the proposed affirmative action ballot initiative and the brouhaha that is building around affirmative action brings home the reality of how much more has to be done to give focus to the glass ceiling. When I shut my eyes and envision the glass ceiling, I realize that rather than breakable glass, what we are dealing with here is shatterproof, shock-resistant Plexiglas.

This is not a substance that can be broken with sledgehammers. Women and people of color have to have better tools to cut through the transparent barriers. But what are the barriers? They are so subtle sometimes.

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It’s not the obvious “you don’t golf with the boys” type of barriers. It’s more the “boys get called on in class more often than the girls do” situation being perpetuated in the executive offices and boardrooms of our major corporations.

Forget all the “girls are just smarter” or “girls just get better grades” and “girls just work harder” excuses that boys give for why girls do better in school. When they started competing with the boys for jobs at the top, it seems women all suddenly got dumb.

The boys at the top figured out they needed to stick together and so they mentored other boys on their way up. When affirmative action and diversity became “politically correct,” the boys also figured out a way to deflect the competition and positioned the girls to compete against each other by reserving a few slots for them.

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Fortunately, some of the ladies who have propelled their way to the top are working to reveal these practices and to change the composition of senior management in both the public and private sectors.

The International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation Fellows Program is helping 12 women from around the United States identify the glass-ceiling barriers. Through a mentoring relationship with women who are senior executives or accomplished leaders, these paired fellows and mentors are developing strategies for breaking through these barriers.

The Fellows Program is building on the experience of women who have overcome barriers, veteran warriors who have traveled the journey and know the pitfalls. These are women who have come forward to be mentors to the Fellows in the program: entrepreneur Raydean Acevedo; former Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke; Susan Falk, president of Limited Inc.; medical services pioneer Gloria Jackson-Bacon; Cathy Minehan of the Federal Reserve Bank; businesswoman Jean Head Sisco; AT&T; executive Beth Bronner; Jenna Dorn of the American Red Cross; Undersecretary for Technology Administration Mary Good; Katherine Lyall, president of the University of Wisconsin system; Judith Rogala, executive vice president of Office Depot, and Elynor Williams of Sara Lee Corp.

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The 12 fellows paired with these mentors are a diverse group: Two are African American, two are Asian American, one is Hispanic. We are women who will be part of and help build a mentor culture in the United States to define strategies and methods to overcome the glass-ceiling barriers.

When I was asked by the IWF selection panel what I wanted to gain from the Fellows Program, I said I needed mentoring in corporate strategic planning. Over the course of the Fellows Program, however, I am realizing that what I need--and what I am getting--is help in understanding the flaws in my strategic plan for my own career.

As one of those high-achiever, straight-A types who has succeeded by working hard and pushing my way up the ladder, it’s been disconcerting to find missing rungs or the ladder disappearing into thin air. I am finding that old strategies that worked when I was in my 20s no longer work for me in my 40s.

I learned in the ‘60s that I needed to be aggressive and assertive to break the stereotypes of the quiet, submissive, exotic, erotic Asian female. I assumed the look of a woman warrior, strong and independent, ready to do battle, to speak before being spoken to, to take control, to be in charge.

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For the move from entry-level management to mid-level management, these strategies worked for me. But as I’ve moved up to higher levels of management, I need to adjust my strategies to match the new playing field. Corporate politics and results-oriented expectations require different leadership. Without a road map to navigate around the barriers and political land mines, you need someone you can ask for directions.

That’s what my IWF mentor is providing me. Judith Rogala of Office Depot has been an executive in the airline industry, the overnight delivery service industry, the international airfreight industry and environmental services, and she knows the glass ceiling well. When I talk to her about the issues I confront at work, I know that she’s “been there, done that.”

Through the Leadership Foundation Fellows Program, I am getting a new set of tools. Instead of a sledgehammer, I have a glass cutter. I am learning new leadership techniques, and I am able to see that there are ways to cut through or go around that transparent barrier.

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